Robin Lane Fox, a teacher of ancient history at Oxford University and a long-time gardening columnist for the Financial Times has collected a set of columns into an erudite and passionate celebration of what he calls "thoughtful gardening" -- defined simply as the application of a refined eye to flower gardening." Using finely drawn portraits of remarkable gardens and gardeners in Europe and the United States and deeply felt judgments about favorite trees, shrubs and perennials, Lane Fox describes his lifelong education in plants.
The problem is that his learning is rooted very deeply into the past. His columns dealing with invasive species and global warming are perhaps most perplexing. He chastises the United States for its "war on invasives" singling out many invasives (nandinas, callery pears, Russian olives) as among his favorites and undeserving targets of American wrath. He acknowledges that plant populations are forever changing, not static, but seems unaware that many native species have evolved in their niches over millennia and have established mutually beneficial relationships with other plants and animals that can be, are are being, destroyed by the introduction of aggressive exotics.
His dismissal of global warming is similarly overdetermined. He argues, correctly, that noone has any idea of what the impact of global warming will be like over the next few generations. But he goes on to argue that the whole issue is overwrought and warns that scares "can be multiplied especially if there are gardening practices that deep down, the scarers dislike." Thus, he reasons, global warming is a crisis exploited and manipulated by those who "hate lawns and flower gardens" and wish to introduce less coddled and more pedestrian massed grasses -- "pretending to be a prairie" -- in Lane Fox's view.
His portraits of fellow gardeners can be particularly cutting, as when he praises Rosemary Verie (until her death "the queen of English gardening') but unnecessarily describes Verie's aging, where "a bottle or two of spirits used to help her through the dark, solitary evenings" in Gloucestershire. He portrays Christopher Lloyd as one of the "most thoughtful of gardeners" but also notes Lloyd's own dismissal of Lane Fox's authority as a horticulturist because he was "only a university lecturer at Oxford." But Lane Fox gets the last word, describing a scene in which Lloyd, in his late seventies, broke from a tour of Kew Gardens to embrace a young male gardener, digging with shirt off, and kissed him "wholeheartedly." Lane Fox continues, "shortly after, the tails on his big topiary peacock birds at Dixter were docked by an intruder. Many of us enjoyed speculating who had done it and why."
Lane Fox is consistent in at least one respect. He constantly rues the political correctness that has limited his favorite "sport" -- foxhunting. And he makes plain that, in England, garden writing too is a blood sport.